My dear friends, what an honor it is to represent a state where ordinary
people are doing such extraordinary things, for Tennessee, our nation,
and beyond. Our state’s religious community is a model ministry for
faith in action. I know of no other state, for instance, where the
Governor’s Commissioner of Health is not only a doctor, but an ordained
minister too. Dr. Kenneth Robinson leaves the Capitol to work weekends
as a pastor in one of America’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

Or take the State’s other celebrated doctor and minister,
Dr. Scott Morris, whose Church Health Center in Memphis has become a
model for the entire nation in providing health care for the working
poor and uninsured. And what about our youth?! From the 8th and 9th
graders at Whitwell Middle School and their Paper Clips Holocaust
project in East Tennessee to the National Civil Rights Museum and Rhodes
College Learning Corridor for public school students in West Tennessee,
the different roads, rivers, and highways in our long state represent
the different paths Tennesseans are taking to serving others. “We are
all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” the Rev. Martin
Luther King, Jr. observed, “tied into a single garment of destiny.”

A special word of shalom to Senator Lamar Alexander
and the other elected officials with us today, to Bishop Chane, and the
Bishops of the Great State of Tennessee, from Bishop vonRosenberg in
East Tennessee to my own Bishop and cherished friend in West Tennessee,
Don Johnson, and Dean CB Baker of St. Mary’s Cathedral. And how honored
I am that the President, officers, trustees and members of Tennessee’s
largest synagogue, Temple Israel, have made the trip to Washington along
with so many Episcopal, Catholic, Protestant and other partners in faith
from throughout the State. We are here from Memphis to Murfeesboro,
from Knoxville to Nashville, from Chattanooga to Union City, and all
over the country.

Yet another reason why I’m so
thrilled to be here is to celebrate this day in the presence of the
Cathedral’s new Dean, Sam Lloyd, with whom I feel a special affinity.
Dean Lloyd is still remembered fondly in Tennessee from his years as
Chaplain at the University of Sewanee, and when Sam Lloyd described the
primary purpose of this cathedral, he articulated the parallel mission
of my home synagogue in Tennessee. “This cathedral,” he wrote, “is a
significant voice for an intellectually vibrant and compassionate
Christianity in a world torn apart by conflict and division.” Change
the words “cathedral”and “Christianity” to “synagogue”and “Judaism,”
and it’s easy to see how we Christians and Jews are truly different
branches of the same family tree. For the aim of Temple Israel in
Tennessee is to be “a significant voice for an intellectually vibrant
and compassionate” Judaism in a world torn apart by conflict and
division. It feels so comfortable being here today in this house of
prayer for all people. If it weren’t for a bat-mitzvah, baby naming,
and Sabbath services, I’d come back next week to witness that glorious
moment when Sam Lloyd is consecrated as Dean of this awe-inspiring
Cathedral. If any of you are timing my sermon, please start now!

We are gathered in the setting the great preacher F.
Forrester Church had in mind when he said: “We all stand in the
cathedral of the world. In cathedrals, there are a multitude of stained
glass windows. Each of us is born into one part of the cathedral, and
our parents and grandparents teach us how to see the light that shines
through our particular window, the window that carries the story of our
faith and heritage.” The same light of God shines through all the
windows of the cathedral, but we interpret that light in different ways,
through the lenses of our particular faith traditions.”

There are many different responses to life in the cathedral of
the world. A relativist would say, “All the windows are basically the
same, so it doesn’t matter where you stand.” A fundamentalist would
say, “The light of God shines only through my window.” And a fanatic?
He would break all the other windows except his own! Clearly, one of
the great Judeo-Christian contributions to the world is the notion that
each of our faith traditions, and each of us, is a refraction of God’s
light, and that we are therefore here not to denigrate, demean, or
refute each other, but to help each other see the light of God in all

The papacy of John Paul II, of blessed
memory, who did more to further Jewish-Christian relations than any Pope
in history mirrors the sense of shared mission and purpose in this
cathedral today. The religious diversity of today’s assembly suggests
one of the greatest achievements of our lifetime. And that achievement
is the realization that religious pluralism is the will of God. Forty
years ago, the hope was expressed that the relationship between Judaism
and Christianity might someday be one of “mutual reverence, that without
denying our profound differences, Jews and Christians would seek to help
each other in understanding what our faith in God requires of us.”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel)

I want to suggest today that
what our faith in God requires of us may be summed up in three words.
Deed over creed. Our Judeo-Christian faith is fundamentally about deed
over creed, the doing over the talking. For a living faith does not
mean preaching God’s language. Living our faith as Christians and Jews
being God’s language.

And I can think of no better
example of what it means to be God’s language than the story depicted in
a stained glass window in this very cathedral. It’s the story of four
WWII chaplains. A Methodist minister named George Fox, a Dutch Reformed
minister named Clark Poling. A Roman Catholic Priest, Father John
Washington, and the fourth was a rabbi from this city named Alexander
Goode. These four chaplains of different faiths became what their
biographer calls, “an immortal symbol of brotherhood. As their
torpedoed ship, the U.S.S. Dorchester, plunged into the depths of the
North Atlantic in February, 1943, these men—a priest, a rabbi and two
ministers of diverse denominations—gave up their life jackets to
passengers who didn’t have one. Then, arm in arm, they joined in
prayer, comforting each other as they sank together into eternity.” The
fire and brimstone they preached was not one of eternal damnation, but
one of our common humanity and what it means to live in God’s image.

The camaraderie of these four chaplains was highly
unusual in the 1940s. Catholics and Protestants didn’t mix with each
other, and neither mixed with Jews. So to see ministers in the same
American uniform of different faiths working together as a team was
virtually unheard of in 1943.

When this ship carrying 900
terrified young soldiers was struck by a Nazi torpedo, one young man,
Michael, was thrown from the boat. Though injured, he was brought back
on to the ship before it sank. Michael hobbled along the starboard side
of the ship when he suddenly saw the four chaplains. Three of the
chaplains had already given their life jackets to boys who didn’t have
them. Dan Kurzman, author of the recently published book, No Greater
writes that Rabbi Goode, the fourth chaplain, “removed his life
jacket and knelt beside another wounded man.” Michael, the narrator of
this story, was mesmerized by the scene he watched from about five yards
away as the rabbi gave the man his life jacket, and unlaced his boots
for the wounded man. The rabbi put the wounded man’s unaffected arm
through an armhole in the life jacket and he tied the other side of the
lifejacket around the wounded shoulder with the bootlaces. When the
ship went down, this improvised life preserver would permit the solider
to float in the water. Rabbi Goode then joined his three spiritual
brothers and they started praying together in English, Hebrew, and
Latin.” “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu…Our father, Who art in
heaven…Hallowed be Thy name…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…Adonai
Echad.” One survivor said that seeing the chaplains continue to
minister to the soldiers as the ship went down is as “close to heaven as
I ever hope to be.”

“Rabbi Goode’s efforts to save the
wounded man with the bootlaces,” Kurzman concludes, was more than an
attempt to rescue one last person. That act symbolized the essence of
these chaplains of different faiths. “It reflected their aim of saving
humanity by ridding it of its inhumanity.”

Whether you come to God by the way of Torah, the way of Christ,
or any other way, shouldn’t that be the goal of our faith
traditions? For the Jewish mission, says Elie Wiesel, is not to make the
world more Jewish; and the Christian mission is not to make the world
more Christian. Our shared mission is to make the world more human.
That’s the message and legacy of the stained glass window in the
Heroes’ Chapel in this National Cathedral.

It’s also the message of our State’s namesake.
Tennessee is not called “The Believers State.” God forbid.
We are the Volunteer State, known for the voluntarism, valor and courage
of volunteer soldiers and citizens of very different creeds in the 18th
and 19th centuries. We provided three U.S. Presidents, Jackson, Polk,
and Johnson, whose deeds mattered much but whose creeds few can recall
because they matter very little. Tennessee’s crowning distinction
isn’t about creed, it’s about the great deeds wrought by
some for the benefit of all. We became the 36th state to ratify the 19th
amendment to the U.S. Constitution thus giving America’s 17
million women their long overdue right to vote. That’s our crowing
distinction, not saving others for God but living a life that is worthy
of being saved! The most repeated command in the five books of Moses,
too often ignored by religious people, is not about belief. The most
repeated command in the Torah is to remember the widow and most
vulnerable members of society. That was Jesus’ message too.

What matters more, my friends? That we believe what is
right, or that we do what is right no matter what our divergent beliefs
may be?
There are some devout and faithful religious people who
sincerely believe that the world is going to hell so why be engaged with
it. That’s not what my faith or the mother church of this cathedral
teaches. God puts each of us in a particular place and time to make a
difference in this world in the here and now. Pray as if everything
depended on God, the rabbis teach, but act as if everything depended on

One week from this Saturday night, the Jewish
festival of Passover will begin. There is an unforgettable moment in
the ritual seder meal when the door is opened for Elijah to enter. Jews
do this to teach that maybe this will be the year when Elijah will
arrive and announce the Messianic Age, the transformation of the world
that is into the world that may someday be. Harold Kushner, in his
book, Living A Life That Matters, speaks of the Christian thinker
Harvey Cox who witnessed this Elijah custom, after which he offered the
most compelling interpretation I’ve ever heard. He suggests that when
we open the door for Elijah every year, and he’s not there, we should
realize something very important: Elijah is not coming! And the
Messiah isn’t coming either. We have to be the Messiah. As Kushner
puts it, “we have to act together to clean up the mess we have made of
God’s world because nobody else is going to magically appear and do it
for us.” When we place deed over creed, when we set aide our own
interests and priorities and give of ourselves generously instead of
being our usual selfish selves, we become the messiah for somebody if
not for everybody! So if Elijah doesn’t appear in Tennessee or DC on
Passover eve, instead of saying, “We’ll just have to pray harder and
wait for next year,” we should say, “If Elijah the prophet isn’t here to
take care of the sick, the poor, the hungry, and homeless, then let me
be Elijah! Let me do whatever I can. After all, isn’t that why God put
me here?!”

Even with the deep faith I have in the
afterlife and world to come, would I take off my life preserver and give
it to a total stranger to save his life instead of mine? I honestly
don’t know if I would. How many of you would do it? Thank God, we’ll
probably never be tested that way, but the heroism of those chaplains,
their selflessness, their willingness not only to pay the supreme
sacrifice for their country, but for a total stranger, is the kind of
religious example we must hold up to the world, not because of their
beliefs, but because of what they did because of their beliefs.

So when we head back to our homes in Tennessee and
everywhere else, let us deepen our love and faith by showing our love
and faith. And may we do that not only through the beautiful rituals
and prayers which add meaning to our lives, but even more, through the
deeds we do for others. May we consider becoming even more religious by
rededicating ourselves to serving others. After all, in the cathedral of
the world, every person is a refraction of God’s light.